In the early chapters of Stormblood, one of the characters delivers my favorite Ambrose Bierce quote: “The covers of this book are too far apart.”
I’ve always taken this to have two meanings. First, and probably the intended interpretation, that this book is too long and that much space between its covers is a reading crime. But I prefer the second, and the one that applies to Jeremy Szal’s Stormblood: I’ve started this book, and I’m mad at the last page from being so far from the first, because I cannot put it down.
In short: this frenetic, grisly sucker-punch of a book manages to be everything you could want from sci-fi, while also carving out its own niche with a rusty slingshiv.
Vakov Fukasawa is a former Reaper who drinks with his techie friend Grim, has some family issues to sort through, and happens to be implanted with stormtech, a permanent resident in his body and an alien drug, which presents as a stormy blue presence swirling beneath his skin.
This stormtech drives the core narrative and the meat of the worldbuilding. Here’s a drug that, in the right dose, enhances someone’s physical abilities, with a high potential for a frankly terrifying addiction. Stormtech is powerful, fascinating, and extremely dangerous, a relic of a long-dead alien race, so of course people want to see what happens when we shoot it up. Stormblood demonstrates the galactic consequences of such a powerful and unknown force on the populace, and deals considerably with its effects on everyday people: civilians struggling with addiction, victims of the blooming drug trade, or former soldiers trying to adjust to life after a war that, in some ways, never truly ended. What happens when a market is created for exploitable citizens already struggling to get their life sorted? How do you take responsibility for its existence when you suddenly have an epidemic of people “blueing out” from taking modified iterations of the drug? And when that epidemic hits, how do you take down an entire drug trafficking empire, one that spans the galaxy?
The care given to these questions and the depiction of stormtech, paired with Szal’s knack for setting a scene, build a vibrant galaxy that manages to be a cyberpunk thriller and a space opera and a great speculative read. There’s a lot to enjoy on the surface level. The guns are cool, the body armor is cool, and the ships are cool. I enjoyed the various “skins,” for medical and stealth and casualwear purposes, which feel appropriately techy and cumbersome and at times just a little gross.
I enjoyed how often (and how many!) characters cried freely in this book, from joy and sadness and anguish; no machismo suppression of feelings here. There is a subtle one-off mention that in New Vladi, Vakov’s homeland, nudity is not a taboo. There is a true sense of place on the hollowed-out asteroid where most of the book is set, and in tandem with that are the trappings of great sci-fi. You’ve got seedy bars and aliens, obstinate ones and nerdy ones and frightening ones. You’ve got funky tech and plenty of weirdos willing to use it; one particularly memorable scene involves a character whose office is, essentially, his own body. While it is (perhaps realistically) depressing to see this future world depicted with all the capitalist, consumer-driven hierarchy we have today, the Common feels like a place I could walk around (but not alone).
What I appreciate most about Stormblood’s tone is the unrelenting positivity of its ethos. Life can be brutal and unfair and will throw everything at you, but this never devolves into fatalistic grimdark action scenes or gratuitous horror. There is hope for our characters, although they certainly have to earn it.
This read was a great way to kick off the new year, and I look forward to everything Szal puts out.